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Colleges turning away even top students

It's not all in your head. It harder to get into college this year.  Selective schools in the Washington, D.C., region and the country are reporting more rejections than ever.
New York City's Columbia University campusMantel/sipa / Sipa Press file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

It's not all in your head. It is harder to get into college this year.

Selective schools in the region and the country are reporting more rejections than ever. There has been a bulge in the number of college-age students, which is expected to continue until the end of the decade. Add in an increased desire among their baby boomer parents to enroll their kids in elite schools -- and the inflated number of applications from students trying to hedge their bets -- and you have the ingredients for a season of frustrated hopes and unexpected disappointments.

At Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a Fairfax County magnet school known for sending graduates to the best-known colleges, students are feeling the strain. One of the school's highest-ranking students was rejected by Yale University despite having two close relatives who had attended that university. "We're all still pretty stunned," said Anita Kinney, the Jefferson student body president.

Many of the best-known and most-selective universities announced record low admission rates this year. Yale set an Ivy League record, accepting only 8.6 percent of its 21,099 applicants. Last year, the school accepted 9.7 percent of its 19,448 applicants. Other school record lows were reported by Columbia University, 9.6 percent; Stanford University, 11 percent; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 13 percent; Brown University, 13.8 percent; Dartmouth College, 15.4 percent and the University of Pennsylvania, 17.7 percent.

In the Washington region, George Washington and Johns Hopkins universities reported their lowest acceptance rates ever. GWU accepted 36 percent of its 19,250 applicants, compared to 37.5 percent of the previous year's 19,406 applicants. Hopkins's rate took a particularly precipitous drop, from 35 percent of 11,278 applicants to 27 percent of 13,869 in just one year.

"We were kind of struck by the fact that we were wait-listing and denying students that last year or two years ago we would have been happy to admit," said John Latting, director of undergraduate admissions. Students, he added, "that we would have admitted."

The University of Virginia admitted only 36 percent of its 16,252 applicants, the lowest rate in seven years. Georgetown University's acceptance rate was just 22 percent of its 15,042 applicants. Officials at the University of Maryland and Howard University said they do not have final numbers. Maryland officials, however, estimated that their acceptance rate would be below 44 percent, lower than last year. Howard expects its acceptance rate to be about the same as last year, 43 percent of about 10,000 applications.

Self-perpetuating cycle
Even smaller schools such as Trinity, a private college in Northeast Washington, noticed a big change, receiving 600 applications compared with just 300 this time last year. "We've not seen anything like it," said Patricia McGuire, Trinity's president. "We're scratching our heads about it."

About 3 million students are expected to graduate from high school this year, and about two thirds of them are looking for college spaces.

The number of rejections is further inflated by the increased number of applications sent out by each student, reacting to the uncertainty of admission and the ease of online and common applications. This produces a self-perpetuating cycle: It is harder to get in, so seniors apply to more schools, which makes it even harder to get in, at least for the most sought-after schools.

"I don't use the term 'safety [school]' anymore," said Shirley Bloomquist, an independent college counselor in Great Falls. "Things are sufficiently unpredictable. . . . Even the top students are worried that no one is going to accept them. It's a real scary time."

College admissions experts warned, however, against making too much of the space crunch in the best-known schools. Only about 10 percent of U.S. colleges are highly selective, and most schools accept most of the students who apply. Even at high schools that felt the pinch of what looks like the hardest admissions year yet, students were admitted to colleges that appeared to have what they needed.

David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said, "There are more prospective applicants in 2006 than there have [been] in any previous year." But, he said, the acceptance rates at famous colleges are well below the 70 percent average rate for all four-year institutions.

No long-term advantage
Research indicates that attendance at a well-known school does not appear to give any long-term advantage to students, at least as measured by incomes 20 years after they graduate. College counselors advise students to look for a school that offers the size and range of courses and activities they are looking for and not worry so much about where it ranks on the U.S. News & World Report list.

Kinney, the Thomas Jefferson student leader, had a mix of acceptances, rejections and wait-listings. She got into Catholic University and is looking forward to majoring in architecture, but parts of what happened this year still irk her.

Barnard College, for instance, sent a recruiter to Jefferson, and "I was the only person at the information session," Kinney said. "I was the only person who applied. They should have let me in!"